Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins

I am so excited to tell you about a book that debuted this week!  Jess Walter's new book, Beautiful Ruins,  is well-beloved by many Odyssey staffers, and in fact he will be at the store later this month to do a reading and sign books for our First Editions Club

I read this book so long ago now that I'm not sure I can give it a coherent review, so maybe I'll just say nice things about it instead.  I plucked it from a tall pile of teetering ARCs back in January, when it still felt like winter might be in front of us and I was craving something to take me away.  In those terms, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is much better than Calgon. 

As it turns out, there was no winter in front of us after all, but that doesn't mean I didn't deeply appreciate the sojourns in warm, sunny coastal Italy.  I have to say, I loved this book against all odds: I loathe am not a fan of using multiple narrators to tell a story; it's done entirely too often and rarely done well.  Walter not only uses multiple narrators, he also uses multiple timelines and multiple media in this novel.  We get 1960s Italy, 1980s UK, and contemporary Hollywood; a decrepit hotelier, skeazy film producer,  Hollywood starlet, frustrated assistant, ambitious playwright, and a no-count musician; straightforward third-person narratives interspersed with excerpts from a screenplay (Donner! I kid you not), a rejected memoir, and an autobiographical 3-act play. The catch is that he does it inventively and seamlessly and in a way that evokes a fresh sense of story, and not in a way that is lazy or gimmicky.

Gosh, where do I even begin?  Given all of those disparate elements, it's almost impossible to summarize this novel, and almost as difficult for me to believe that I loved it, but love it I did.  The unlikely pairings of multiple narrative styles with multiple timelines works brilliantly and I salute Walter for it.  I would even go so far as to say that he has set the bar impossibly high for other authors follow. The jacket design is perfect for this book, with the inviting image of a Portofino-like town mingled with a retro-looking typeface.  Once I picked up this book, I could hardly tear myself away from it, so much did I long to immerse myself in this world. I'm almost sad that I've read it already and don't have it to look forward to, because this book would make the perfect summer read.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:
Weren't movies his generation's faith anyway--its true religion? Wasn't the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral? A million schools taught ten million curricula, a million churches featured ten thousand sects with a billion sermons--but the same movie showed in every mall in the country. And we all saw it...flickering pictures stitched in our minds that replaced our own memories, archetypal stories that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values. What was that but religion (21)?
The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touchups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell facial injections that have caused a seventy-two-year old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl (93).
But aren't all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos--we know what's out there. It's what isn't that truly compels us. Technology may have shrunk the epic journey to a couple of short card rides and regional jet lags--four states and twelve-hundred miles traversed in an afternoon--but true quests aren't measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant--sail for Asia and stumble on America--and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along (284).
So if you're looking for a fantastically-good summer read that will whisk you away from your daily grind, or if you're interested in the structure of fiction and how authors play around with it, do yourself a favor and check out Beautiful Ruins.   The author, whom I got to meet in Boston a couple of months ago at a Harper dinner, is also a real sweetheart of a fella.  Thank goodness I met him then because I'll miss his reading later this month when I'm away on vacation.  But trust me on this one--this is a book you're going to want to read, written by an author you're going to want to meet.